By Carey Reeder
Special to The Tuscaloosa News

The University of Alabama men’s and women’s cross country teams begin their season Friday at Mississippi College.

Looking to build off last year’s impressive second-place finish at the SEC Championships, the men’s team returns a number of key runners. The All-American trio of Vincent Kiprop, Gilbert Kigen and Alfred Chelanga, who finished 1-2-3 at the SEC Championships last year, respectively, are all back. The Tide’s seventh runner, James Brinyark, a graduate of Northside High School, also returns to give head coach Dan Waters four of his top seven runners back for 2018..

The experience on both teams is essential for the overall improvement Waters wants to see this year.

“It’s an old persons sport and we have a number of upper classmen on both teams that need to show that consistency,” Waters said. “It’s about getting stronger, faster, better than you were the season before to continue to improve.”

Kiprop, Kigen and Chelanga all finished in the top 50 at the NCAA Championships last season, helping lead the Crimson Tide to a No. 14 final national ranking. The advantage to having world-class runners is something senior runner Clay Austell says is instrumental for the team moving forward to a new season.

“We have some national elite runners and they’re at the top of their sport,” Austell said. “It’s great having them around to help push the team and improve.”

The finish of the men’s team last year was one of the best in school history and Austell can see the mood of his teammates change as the new season approaches.

“You can sense this change in work ethic and culture from guys that this momentum is building up behind the program,” Austell says. “We belong among the best in the SEC and now we think we can compete with the best in the nation.”

The women’s team had a strong 2017 season, finishing in the top-seven in the SEC for the fifth-straight year. All three of their top runners from the SEC Championships, McKenzie Yanek, Elisabeth Danis and Rebecca Buteau, return this season, giving Waters reason for optimism.

“We were just a few points away from being a top-tier team in the SEC but we just need a little more consistency,” Waters said. “If you look at what we lost to graduation compared to other teams, we have almost everyone back and we can really have a great year on the women’s side.”

The women’s team last year did not have as much depth as the men last year. With a fully healthy team, new recruits and the success of the men’ team to lean on, junior runner Rebecca Buteau sees the 2018 season as a fresh start.

“We have a lot of new faces mixed with experienced ones and it’s going to bring some really cool changes,” Buteau said. “Practicing with the men every day is great too because we see the success they’ve had and we think we can have similar results.”